Game development, creative tools and engines, life and business in Japan.
This post looks at a few Japanese game middleware companies which are not necessarily well known outside of Japan.
There was a time when you could joke that the only tool needed by the Japanese game industry was Excel. That was referring to both the lack of focus put on the development of nice tools and middleware (at least compared to the West) and the maestria demonstrated by Japanese developers when using Microsoft’s spreadsheet.
If the Japanese industry is still somewhat lagging behind in terms of tools and middleware in general, it has certainly made a lot of progress recently and we are starting to see some very nice tools emerge. I’m listing below a few Japanese game middleware companies I know of (mostly because I know people working there or I have had business with them). Although I’m indicating links to their English pages (when they exist), note that the Japanese pages may provide more information.
The modern history of CRI Middleware started in 2001 but before that they were known as CSK Research Institute (CRI) and did some research for Sega in the 90s, mostly on audio and video encoding. Now, their products are regrouped under the CRIWARE umbrella and include ADX2, Sofdec2 and File Magic PRO.
ADX2 is the leading game audio middleware in Japan with more than 2800 games using it. It has all the features you would expect from a game audio middleware and then some. Cherry on the cake, it’s quite easy to use for both sound designers and programmers alike. There is also a free ADX2 LE version available for game indie developers. Sofdec is a movie encoder / decoder (it was recently used on Destiny for example). File Magic PRO – as you probably guessed – is a file / packaging system. There is also a CRIWARE Unity plug-in including all of the above as a package for Unity.
Silicon Studio may be one of the best known Japanese middleware providers in the West as they have been exhibiting at GDC. They are focusing on both full-fledged engines (like Orochi or Paradox, a new open-source C# game framework), and graphics engines (like Mizuchi, a real-time rendering engine and Yebis, a middleware for advanced optical effects used by Final Fantasy XV). By the way, if you are wondering where all these names came from (well, except for Paradox), it’s from Japanese mythology.
As a side note, since I regularly receive emails about people wanting to work in the game industry in Japan, it is worth mentioning that Silicon Studio have a lot of foreigners on staff so that’s probably one of your best bets if you want to work in game technology in Japan.
Matchlock are somewhat related to Silicon Studio, they have the same CEO. Their product is Bishamon, a middleware specialized in particle effects. Unsurprisingly, Bishamon also comes from the name of a Buddhist deity.
Don’t get fooled by their name, WebTechnology are mostly building graphic tools and technologies. One of them, relatively popular among indie game developers is OPTiX SpriteStudio which allows you to create 2D animations for your games.
Actually, at Tsugi we did a special version of DSP Anime that works with SpriteStudio:
Although Enterbrain is probably more known as a publisher of game-related magazines such as Famitsu, they are also publishing tools to build games, the most famous being RPG Maker (the latest version is RPG Maker VX Ace).
I don’t know them very well, expect for the fact that one of our former interns is now working there :-). They are making a game engine.
I would not be a good founder if I didn’t talk about our little venture, Tsugi. Based in Niigata, we are developing sound tools and middleware for the game industry, putting the emphasis on workflow efficiency and creative options.
Professional software includes Alto, an audio localization tool, AudioBot, an audio batch processor and QuickAudio, a sound extension for Windows Explorer. GameSynth is our upcoming procedural audio middleware. We also have two sound effects generators for indie game developers, DSP Anime and DSP Retro, which enjoy a nice notoriety in Japan.
Do you have any questions about Japanese tools and middleware? Don’t hesitate to ask! I will try to update this post.
Many sites still link to the old version of nicolasfournel.com, promising audio tools so powerful that they will make you lose weight, become richer than Croesus and improve your sex life. Never being one to disappoint my fellow audio nerds, and because I received many requests – not all from my mom – through email, Twitter messages and shamanic incantations, I decided to add a menu for these old tools at the top of this page.
I started by adding the ones which were the most requested, i.e. AudioPaint, Blip and WMidi. Please note that these tools (or at least their first versions) date respectively from 2002, 2007 and 2006, an eternity in computer years. Therefore, I offer no guarantee whatsoever about their good working state and usefulness. Also, you probably will have to hunt down a couple of old Microsoft libraries to make them work.
This post describes how we generated thousands of voice files to test Alto, the new audio localization tool released by Tsugi.
So many files, so little time
With the explosion of content in AAA games, it is not rare to end up having thousands or even tens of thousands of dialog lines in a project once they are all translated. Some lines may be recorded internally, others some by external studios or localization agencies. But how do you manage quality control? Comparing all these dialog lines manually would be cumbersome, error-prone, and actually pretty much impossible without an army of little elves with multilingual skills.
Enter Alto. Alto is an audio localization tool (see how clever?) that compares these thousands of dialogue lines in several languages automatically, finding missing or misnamed files, checking their audio format (sample rate, channels and bit depth), their duration (including leading and trailing silence), their levels (average and peak) or even their timbre. Alto can get the data directly from your folders (with files organized in subfolders, having prefixes or suffixes…) or by reading the files referenced by an Excel sheet or even by importing a game audio middleware project (ADX2, FMOD and Wwise are all supported). Here are a couple of screenshots:
Once the analysis done, you can give a nice PDF / Excel / HTML report to your manager or client, showing the quality of you work. Or go back to check all the errors You can also get an XML file so third party tools could read it and automatically mark dialogue as final or placeholder for example.
It’s incredible the number of small – and sometimes bigger- errors the studios who beta-tested Alto have found in their older projects. That does not mean their work was bad, but simply that it is nearly impossible to get perfect localized dialogue in each language on big projects without some kind of automated process to test everything.
Testing Alto meant that we needed thousands of audio files in many languages. This kind of data is quite hard to get. Asking files from old projects to some of our clients would have taken time due to IP concerns. Of course, we planned to have beta-testing with game studios, but we at least needed something to help us develop the program, before it even reached the beta-testing stage.
It’s not that uncommon in the game industry to generate placeholder dialogue lines with a speech synthesizer. So I decided to do the same with the test files and to write an application which would create all these files for us.
This application takes a text file as input. It starts by segmenting it into sentences based on the punctuation marks. Then I use the Microsoft Speech Synthesizer to generate the audio files for the reference language. The next step is to send the sentences to the Google Translate API to be translated in order to synthesize them in other languages. It turns out that the Google Translate API is not free anymore (alternatives are not free either or of lesser quality). Even for a few files, you need to register and enter your credit card information, you need an API key etc… However, Google’s interactive translation web page still makes callbacks using public access without an API key. By giving a look to these AJAX calls and sending them directly from code it is possible to get your translation done (you just need to parse out the JSON returned).
Since we are sending the text sentence by sentence and not as a big chunk of text, we don’t have a problem with the size limit imposed by Google’s translation web page. Of course this also means that we make many more calls, which could be a problem speed-wise. Fortunately, it ends up being very fast. Having now translated the text in various languages, I sent it to the corresponding voices I downloaded for the Microsoft Speech Synthesizer. You can find 27 of them here! (On that topic, make sure that the voices you are downloading are for the version of the synthesizer you have installed).
Finally, I needed to introduce some errors to make sure Alto was doing its job correctly. The Microsoft Speech API allows us to choose different types of voices as well as different rates and volumes of speech, which was an easy starting point to add some variations. In addition, the program re-opens some of the files generated and saves them in a different format, with a different number of channels, sample rate or bit-depth. Some files are also renamed or deleted to simulate missing and misnamed files. I used some existing Tsugi libraries to add some simple audio processing to stretch the sounds, add silence at the beginning or at the end, as well as to insert random peaks. To test the spectral centroid, the application also boasts a few filters.
The user interface of our little tool allows us to select the voices (and therefore the corresponding languages) we want to generate dialogue for, as well as a percentage for each type of error we want to insert. Playing with the percentages allows us to test various cases from one or two tiny mistakes lost in thousands of files to all files having multiple errors. The program also generates a log file so we can see which errors were added to which files and check that they are actually detected in Alto.
Here is a picture of AltoTestGen:
Not very pretty but it did the job! All in all, after just a couple of hours of programming, we had thousands of lines in about 20 languages and could generate thousands of new ones in a matter of minutes. Although the voice acting is definitely not AAA , these files are easy to recognize and perfect for our tests: mission accomplished!
This post is about Audio Dashboards, a technique we devised at Tsugi to improve the game audio workflow of our clients.
Where it came from
At Tsugi, we provide consulting services to game studios. We visit their audio departments, sit down with the sound designers and try to get a better understanding of their workflow, both in general and in the context of their current project: what are their most common tasks, how do they tackle them, what are the bottlenecks and what technologies are they missing. We then write a report and make recommendations. The team can implement these changes with our help, ask us to do it for them or just leave it at that for the time being. Often, we end up developing new types of tools in the process, which is exactly what happened with the Audio Dashboards.
The idea for the Audio Dashboards came from a couple of observations during these visits:
– Often, the GUI of the audio middleware / internal tool is not the most adequate for the project or for the team. A middleware company must cater to the wishes of the many and their solution cannot be the most efficient or intuitive for a given project. As for audio internal tools, they are often considered fine as long as they can export the data correctly.
– In mid-sized audio teams and bigger audio departments, it is not rare to have sound designers working on a specific type of content for a game: Foley, weapons, ambiences etc… Therefore, they always use the same subset of features of the middleware and the other ones are in the way.
– Sometimes the information the sound designers need is simply not available in the tool, or they would like to see it presented in a different way. Maybe they would like to see a pie chart representing the memory consumption per sound bank. Or maybe they would like a more immediate and graphic way to setup random containers and assign a weight to the different assets.
What it is
What we call Audio Dashboards at Tsugi are actually simple software layers that give you the information you want (and only that) while offering a better interface (more intuitive, more productive) to do your work. They are custom-made standalone applications that you run on the top (or instead) of the middleware or internal audio tool and that export data towards them.
An Audio Dashboard can serve as a façade to one or several tools simultaneously and they don’t have to be limited to audio. For example, a sound designer working on ambiences could have a dashboard which includes parameters linked to the level editor of his or her game. Similarly, the dashboard for a sound designer working on first-person Foley could get some input from an animation tool. Of course, this assumes that we can communicate in some way with the other software or at the very least read its project files.
Useful features can be added to the Audio Dashboard itself, like VST hosting, allowing you to process your assets with a VST plug-in chain specific to your project (and saving you the multiple switches between your audio middleware and your DAW). We can also implement your favorite input controls: map key shortcuts / mouse buttons as you want, add support for a MIDI control surface or any other input peripheral such as the Leap. Finally, statistics on banks can be generated and various reports exported, which makes Audio Dashboards very useful tools for any audio director wanting to keep track of a project without having to dive in all the implementation details.
Here is an example of a very simple interface that we imagined for a client to create dynamic sound effects or dialogue.
You can drag and drop samples directly on the work pane (they will be automatically added to the banks and all the intermediary objects such as containers for Wwise or Cues for ADX2 will be created later as well). The samples are represented by colored circles. They are organized horizontally (sequencing) and vertically (selection). The colors indicate their behavior (green = single sample that is always played, blue = randomized samples, pinkish = samples selected from a game input). The size of a circle corresponds to the volume of the sample, and its opacity to the probability that it will be selected. On this picture, random ranges for volume and pan are also visible.
There is no information about the underlying data structure (containers, switches, how they are connected etc…) because it should not be the first thing a sound designer has to think about. Very complex behaviors can be defined easily with this interface, while the overview is always visible and understandable. Because the sound designer only has to focus on the creative part and does not have to deal with all the implementation details, it makes him/her more productive while also minimizing the risks of errors.
How it works
In all the Audio Dashboards, we first select a game audio project (e.g. .wproj for Wwise, .fspro for FMOD Studio or atmcproject for ADX2). From there, we can read the information about the structure of the project, the individual work units etc… This will allow us to get access to any existing data we would like to reference and also to make sure that there are no conflicts (names, IDs…) between the data we are generating and the data currently in the project.
Once the sound designer is done editing the data, we build the intermediary audio objects that correspond to what he did and then export them to the middleware. New banks are created if needed, samples are copied, random containers are built, volume, pitch, pan and filter settings are assigned to sound events etc…
This is made easier by the fact that now all the main game audio middleware use separate files (XML or XML-like such as Orca) to store their sound objects, and not a giant monolithic project file (as it was for example the case with the previous generation of tools like FMOD Designer or the former version of ADX2).
This brings us to another interesting benefit of having a façade. It can serve as a common interface from which to export to various run-times. Having a similar editing experience whatever your engine is can definitely save a lot of time, especially if you switch middleware mid-project or between two installments of the same franchise (and have a lot of assets to port). A lot of the features are similar between the middleware tools (packaging of samples in banks, randomization, volume, pan, pitch, filter parameters etc…) so it is relatively easy to export to all of them from a single interface. Moreover, at Tsugi we already developed a special library that interfaces with the three main game audio middleware. All our software from professional to hobbyist level is able to import or export data for ADX2, Fmod and Wwise.
Before concluding, a point worth mentioning is playback within the dashboard. Several methods can be used. Some middleware or internal audio tools provide you with an API to control them, in some other cases we are able to call the bank creation command line utility and use a minimal run-time to play the sound. In some cases it’s not such a big deal and you simply create your assets on the dashboard and just switch to the tool to play. In cases such as the example described above – or if you just want to test how a random container will sound and adjust the different weights – the playback can be coded as part of the dashboard itself.
If you have questions about the concept of Audio Dashboards or you think your audio department could benefit from our help designing one (or if you want us to look at other ways to improve your game audio workflow), feel free to contact me directly or Tsugi through the contact form.
Hello everybody! I finally put my old web site to rest. It dated from 2002!
I will put some of the tools back online if there is any interest at all. But from now on, I will post here about game development, creative tools and engines, as well as life and business in Japan. For shorter but more regular updates on all these topics, you call also follow me on twitter: @nicolasfournel